The Nicaraguan authorities said on Sunday that they had released 19 clergymen who had been jailed and handed them over to the Vatican, the latest development in the autocratic government’s longstanding persecution of the Roman Catholic Church.
Among those set free was Bishop Rolando Álvarez, one of the most prominent critics of the government left in Nicaragua, who had been convicted of treason and sentenced to 26 years in prison last February. Another bishop, Isidoro Mora, 15 priests and two seminarians were also released.
Silvio Báez, a Nicaraguan bishop in exile in the United States, celebrated the news in a Sunday Mass in Miami on Sunday, saying that “the criminal Sandinista dictatorship” of President Daniel Ortega “has not been able to overcome the power of God.”
The release came after Pope Francis drew attention to the attacks on the church in his New Year’s Day address, telling the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square that he was “following with concern what is happening in Nicaragua, where bishops and priests have been deprived of their freedom.”
In a statement, the Nicaraguan government expressed gratitude to Pope Francis “for the very respectful and discreet coordinations carried out” to send the 19 clergymen to the Vatican.
Over the last several years, Mr. Ortega has jailed or forced into exile just about every opposition leader and dissident who has posed a credible challenge to his rule. The campaign eventually turned on the Roman Catholic Church, whose leaders had continued to speak out against the government’s abuses.
Martha Patricia Molina, a researcher who has tracked attacks on clergymen in Nicaragua, said she had documented at least 782 acts of aggression against the Catholic Church since 2018, including priests being tied up and physically assaulted by paramilitaries.
Vatican News reported on Jan. 1 that at least 14 priests, two seminarians and a bishop had recently been arrested in Nicaragua. Many of the recent detentions came after priests publicly prayed for Bishop Álvarez, Ms. Molina said.
In October, the Nicaraguan government sent to the Vatican 12 clerics who had recently been released from prison.
Ms. Molina said it was good news that the clergymen had been freed, noting that torture has been documented in Nicaraguan prisons. But she condemned the government for forcing the religious leaders to leave their own country.
“In this group, there are many priests who are elderly, and exile is a very painful thing they will have to face,” Ms. Molina said.
Bishop Álvarez, who was arrested in August 2022, rose to prominence as a staunch critic of Mr. Ortega in 2018, when a government crackdown on nationwide demonstrations led to the deaths of more than 300 people. He used the pulpit of the Matagalpa cathedral to demand the release of political prisoners and justice for the families of protesters who had died at the hands of the police.
Alfonso Flores Bermúdez and Frances Robles contributed reporting.